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Many of us don’t understand Americans

The victory of President-elect Donald Trump multiplies doubt about the common sense of many Americans.

Offered the choice between a candidate refined by a lifetime committed to inclusiveness, humanity, dignity and strengthening the common good – and one notable for his narcissistic ambition, racism, sexism, deceitfulness, erraticism, careless isolationism and inexperience, these Americans chose the latter.

Of course far more careful analysis is required to try to understand their motivations. As the campaign proceeded recognition grew of the depth of the sense of neglect and exclusion from the claimed benefits of neo-liberal globalisation. These emotions and frustrations were reported to be strongest amongst low income, poorly educated white males — but support for Trump wasn’t limited to them.

Apparently Hillary Clinton’s determination to build on President Obama’s progress in increasing employment, and her clear strategies for addressing continuing problems couldn’t get past the intensity of the emotional anger caused by feelings of being outsiders.

But how could so many white women vote for a ruthlessly lustful exploiter? It seems likely that there is a strong, underlying misogyny in American society. It has been suggested that the vote was partly an expression of hostility to many aspects of contemporary social norms. But if so, how could they neglect Trump’s crudity? Much analysis and reflection is required.

Some Americans and observers in the rest of the world may be tempted to conclude that previous constraints on electoral behaviour can in future be neglected. Have the boundaries of acceptable political rhetoric been permanent stretched because Trump used vilification, baseless charges of criminality and other grotesque insults as a daily tactic? Perhaps some voters were excited by the wild exaggerations and aggressiveness.

But as Clinton said to her supporters in her post-election speech, it is vital that we hold to the values we share and the vision we hold. It is more vital than ever that Trump’s corruption of the political processes and style is rejected, and that truth and decency be emphasised.

Trump’s victory is a challenge to Australians and for Australian foreign policy. The superficiality of his policy comments makes forecasts about his actions after inauguration difficult. But his erraticism is not sufficient reason to presume that he will not seek to implement what he has said. His supporters will expect him to implement his repeated themes. He will lose their support if he does not. He has constantly fed racism, sexism, criticism of immigrants and fear of Muslims: will he stop doing that? Let’s hope so, but it would be sentimental to assume it will happen.

He is a climate change denier who apparently believes global warming is a Chinese conspiracy. One challenge for Australian governments is to find ways of strengthening the American states, NGOs, educationalists and lovers of the environment in maintaining their sustainable development policies and advocacy.

” … power-hungry, malignant opportunists could manipulate their way, massively distorting and undermining what is best about US public policy.”

Trump has promised tax cuts for high income earners, demonstrating complete disregard for the explosive growth in inequality in the US. He is a massive tax avoider himself.

Increasing inequality in the US will make strengthening equity in Australia more difficult. Legislative action to expose and constrain international tax evasion has to be undertaken internationally and collectively. Will he prevent effective action by the G20?

Most threateningly, he has strongly criticised the US agreement with Iran to reduce sanctions provided Iran doesn’t build nuclear weapons. Abandoning that agreement would free Iran to build a nuclear bomb, encouraging Israel to take military action against Iran and risk starting a Middle Eastern war.

He has also suggested that the US should withdraw forces from Japan and Korea, arguing that they could both protect themselves by building nuclear weapons. That is, he carelessly contemplates ending constraints on nuclear proliferation, and so would deliberately increase the risk of nuclear war by accident or design.

A major risk is simply that Trump’s strategic shallowness will create a vacuum into which power-hungry, malignant opportunists could manipulate their way, massively distorting and undermining what is best about US public policy.

These and other risks mean that Australian governments cannot presume that US policy will be well judged. Therefore Australia must think much more carefully and rigorously about what are Australia’s and the global interests, and be ready and able to argue for those with firmness, consistency and clarity. Depending on what President Trump does this could move Australia towards greater independence within the US Alliance.

There are always debates in Washington about the evolution of policy. A wise Australian tactic will be to encourage and support those who are advocating effective multilateral engagement and nuanced subtlety in negotiations rather than provocative aggression. Whatever happens, Australia must steadily improve its diplomatic representation and build up its capacity for peaceful conflict resolution.

In her concession speech Clinton challenged her supporters to keep hope alive by affirming the values for which they had been campaigning, and staying engaged. ‘Constitutional democracy demands our participation’. Despair is defeat. Seeking the lessons from this campaign and maintaining commitment are the way forward.

John Langmore is a Professorial Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.

This article has been co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch.

Author Bio

John Langmore

John Langmore is a Professorial Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.